How an engineer might be the answer to curing disease

September 2015

- Associate Professor Jonathan Shaw - In 10 years’ time, our current model of medical research may be superseded by cross-disciplinary collaboration involving specialists from a number of fields outside the medical sector.

So what does an engineer know about medical science? As much as I know about engineering, I would imagine, which is next to nothing. However, engineers have skills and knowledge that might benefit medical research.

Until recently, people within a medical discipline were self-contained, not only with the knowledge they had, but the research they were conducting. There is an increasing amount of evidence that suggests that this is not the most efficient way to tackle all medical research, mainly because this expertise does not support ‘out of the box’ solutions.

When you apply a cross-disciplinary approach, you can often find a new angle to tackle very complex problems. A medical research team working on respiratory medicine might involve experts on metabolic disease. This is what is called a multi-disciplinary approach, as the fields are different, but stay within the boundaries of medical science. This is nothing particularly new.

But what happens when you throw a completely different field of knowledge into the mix? In other words, a trans-disciplinary tactic. What can a mathematician, physicist or engineer possible contribute to medical science?

Traditionally, health care professionals were considered to be the only people qualified enough to research, treat and manage chronic disease, but we are fast learning that other disciplines have a lot to contribute, because they have insights into problems that transcend the very narrow scope of expertise in medical science.

Using the example of an engineer again, we can see how someone who excels at organising projects and has an eye for detail might have a new way of thinking about how to structure the management of a disease that health care administrators have not considered. In saying that, I don’t think these outside influences necessarily have to come from science-based fields. People from different types of professionals and organisations also have the potential to make a positive impact on medical science.

So why aren’t we doing it?

By 2025, I believe cross-disciplinary research will be common practice. However, to make it so, we have to overcome the challenges of bringing these people together. For me, there are two specific sets of problems that present themselves.

  1. People within the field of medical science are familiar with today’s medical problems (and with a certain set of potential solutions), but may not be aware of other potential solutions that exist outside their sphere or experience.
  2. Specialists outside of biological science may have a set of tools and solutions available, but struggle to know how and in what health areas they can be applied.

They may not even consider the possibility that a health problem exists for which they have a solution.

The answer is reaching out into the wider community and finding out who would be interested in contributing. For who, apart from those interested and passionate about a project, would want to be a part of something that is not in their field?

The evolution of medical research

Medical science and research need to engage and embrace ideas and thinkers outside the health sphere. This is essential for the basic scientific discoveries that underpin the development of new therapies and for unlocking the mechanisms underlying disease processes.

However, it is also important for other areas of health research. Experts in information technology and project management can undoubtedly contribute to finding better ways or organising the complexities of medical care.

Self-management and lifestyle change are essential to achieve the best outcomes for many chronic diseases – the advertising and marketing industries have an impressive track record of producing behaviour change, and need to be engaged to harness their skills.

In the next ten years, I envisage a significant change in how we approach medical research and this is likely to result in significant medical advances. We will need to think outside current paradigms, identify what the big questions are, and then find people with the right skills to answer them.